Really Good First Record’
How do you start a story about a band who takes their name from a term created by writer Don DeLillo for his novel, White Noise, about a deadly chemical cloud that kills off communities as it spreads across the sky moving from town to town. It sounds surreal, which is exactly what guitarist Steven Chen of The Airborne Toxic Event describes about being in this band, and playing to audiences that are drawn to their music and coming into the venues in droves when they see the bandÃ‚Â’s name on the marquee. The Airborne Toxic EventÃ‚Â’s crowds are expanding similarly to the rate that a toxic cloud progresses in mass as it moves along its path consuming greater numbers of people along its travels.
The Airborne Toxic Event formed in California, the Silver Lake distinct to be exact, in 2006. Motored by the drive of singer Mikel Jollett and carried on the axle of drummer Daren Taylor, the band was catapulted when bassist Noah Harmon, keyboardist and viola player Anna Bulbrook, and guitarist Steven Chen came on board. The Airborne Toxic Event became local celebrities when radio stations, KROQ and Indie 103.1 in California began playing tracks from the bandÃ‚Â’s self-titled and self-released EP, like Ã‚Â‘Does This Mean YouÃ‚Â’re Moving On?Ã‚Â’ and Ã‚Â‘Papillon.Ã‚Â’ This moved the band into the market of being signed to a record deal and Majordomo Records got it. Now, the band is gearing up for the release of their self-titled, debut full-length album due out on August 5, 2008. After having played numerous small clubs across the US and in the UK, and several larger stages including Live 105 Summer Festival and Pemberton Festival in British Columbia, The Airborne Toxic Event are just beginning to make their ascent. The band is set to play the Virgin Festival in Toronto, Canada alongside Oasis, and the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado.
UG: How does being in this band make you come alive?
Steven Chen: ItÃ‚Â’s funny how being in an enormous room full of strangers allows you to express yourself in ways you never could in a small room full of friends. IÃ‚Â’ve been in very few bands so my frame of reference is very limited, but I canÃ‚Â’t imagine that itÃ‚Â’s supper common for band members to slip into their respective places opposite each other as easily as weÃ‚Â’ve been able to. WeÃ‚Â’re all sort of Muppets with strong personalities that become exaggerated once weÃ‚Â’re on stage, and somehow we donÃ‚Â’t step all over each other but just kind of around one another. I think different people in the band have different reasons for being in the band, and likewise, probably feed off of slightly different energies. For me, thatÃ‚Â’s part of it that I can look across the stage at Noah, whoÃ‚Â’s in his own groove, bump shoulders with Mikel in the middle of a song, wink at Daren, or literally lean on Anna and know that weÃ‚Â’re all in this together, contributing whatever it is that we each contribute. That we can come together and create this thing and then express the hell out of it onstage for people we donÃ‚Â’t know, gives a pretty amazing high.
What was your first experience like playing gigs in the UK? Where did you play and who were you on tour with in the UK?
We played in the UK for the first time last summer doing a short, two-week tour through Brighton, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, and London. We didnÃ‚Â’t tour with anyone, really. We just filled out some bills, played the Great Escape Festival in Brighton with the Annuals as well as a Club NME night at Koko. That Koko show was by far the biggest show weÃ‚Â’d ever played until that point – this massive 1,600 capacity theatrical looking venue with multiple balconies, people moshing to songs we didnÃ‚Â’t know you could mosh to. We fell in love with British audiences while we were there. Not many people knew who we were at first, but some did, and a few even made homemade Airborne T-shirts to wear to our Koko show. We were loading into soundcheck and these people walked by wearing vaguely familiar shirts. We were stunned and so surprised that we invited them backstage and gave them beer. In general, it seemed that a lot of our music seemed to fit right in with the British crowds, and they were so exuberant about it. Rock music has a certain stature over there, like a national pastime.
“WeÃ‚Â’re all sort of Muppets with strong personalities that become exaggerated once weÃ‚Â’re on stage.”
Do you remember the first concert that the Airborne Toxic Event ever played? When was it and where? What was the experience like for you?
Yes, definitely. We played the Echo in October of 2006 in Echo Park on the east side of Los Angeles by Silver Lake. ItÃ‚Â’s one of the fixtures of the Silver Lake/eastside scene and we were ecstatic that weÃ‚Â’d actually landed a gig there and not some smaller, crummy by-the-wayside venue. We were also incredibly nervous because the five of us had only just recently gotten together as a full band. Mikel and Daren had been practicing for about five months, but it was only in the last six weeks or so that Noah, Anna, and I had joined the lineup. I hadnÃ‚Â’t even really met Noah until probably a week before the show because everyone was so busy at the time, and Noah was in like 16 other bands. What I really remember from the show was the outpouring of the support from L.A.Ã‚Â’s eastside music scene, something we hoped would happen but had no idea would happen so thoroughly. WeÃ‚Â’d been sending music to blogs and asking them to come see us play our debut show, but fully prepared for the worst. A couple of friends and family members, my Aunt Elaine, possibly, but then people actually came like 200 or 300 of them – blogs, friends, etc. And then they wrote about it, and kept coming to and writing about our shows. We were incredibly lucky to have that from the start.
What made those early shows feel right for you and encouraged the band to continue on this path?
We were driven, Mikel especially. He started the band with a clear vision in mind and kept plowing forward. ItÃ‚Â’s interesting because heÃ‚Â’s a really humble guy, but early on, didnÃ‚Â’t seem to have a doubt in his mind about the band, or at least didnÃ‚Â’t show it. That attitude eventually found its way around the band in different incarnations. A lot of bands talk about chemistry, members connecting musically and on a personal level, etc. ItÃ‚Â’s one thing to say it and another to realize itÃ‚Â’s actually happening, and it was definitely palpable the first time we all stepped into a room together to play a song. No one had an agenda, but we all had really strong opinions about what we like about music – emotionally and technically. For a long time, we just didnÃ‚Â’t have a Ã‚Â‘badÃ‚Â’ show. In retrospect of course, many were probably rough, but as a progression, it was smooth and productive, each one better than the last. There was also a sense that something was stirring in the L.A. music scene and had been for quite a while. We felt that there was an emotionality to what we and a lot of other bands were doing at a certain moment that seemed very much on the precipice of something unique and fully engaging. For whatever reason, it never made sense to hold back or take a breath.
How did radio stations like KROQ and Indie 103.1 get a hold of your music? Which songs did they play and why do you think their DJÃ‚Â’s took an interest in AirborneÃ‚Â’s music?
KROQ and Indie 103.1 are huge supporters of the Silver Lake scene. Kat Corbett hosts KROQÃ‚Â’s locals show Ã‚Â‘Locals OnlyÃ‚Â’ and Mark Sovel, a.k.a. Ã‚Â‘ShovelÃ‚Â’ hosts Ã‚Â‘Check One Two,Ã‚Â’ the local shows at Indie 103.1, both mainstay rock stations in L.A. WeÃ‚Â’d been excitedly sending EPÃ‚Â’s to whomever would listen to them – and of course Indie and KROQ were at the top of our list. Pretty soon, they were playing songs from our EP – mainly Ã‚Â‘Does This Mean YouÃ‚Â’re Moving On?Ã‚Â’ and Ã‚Â‘Papillon.Ã‚Â’ Both (radio stations) invited us onto their local shows and we were in regular contact with them. Both stations sponsored shows that we played, and came out to tons of other ones. Kat and Shovel were literally fans, which was just a great feeling, to have these hugely influential tastemakers jumping up and down at our shows. Then they went above and beyond and bumped us into regular rotation, and that was just bonkers. We were unsigned at the time and had just finished putting the final touches on our homemade album when both stations added Ã‚Â‘Sometime Around MidnightÃ‚Â’ to their regular rotations. We had good relationships with Kat and Shovel so it was a no-brainer to send whatever we had and thought sounded good to both stations. Our hope was that they would play some new Airborne songs on their local shows, but had no idea everything would move so quickly. I remember laying down those last guitar tracks on the song and it was literally just a few weeks later that I was hearing Ã‚Â‘MidnightÃ‚Â’ on the radio driving down Wilshire. I just thought, Ã‚Â‘What the Hell is happening?Ã‚Â’ That song, in particular, seemed to strike a chord with DJÃ‚Â’s and fans because itÃ‚Â’s simultaneously so personal and universal, and we really just wanted hit people in the gut with this one heartbreaking story. I like to think that Shovel and Kat just responded to the music instinctively as fans without a particular agenda or a specific line of thinking.
What are the bandÃ‚Â’s aspirations for the new record? What is the band looking to achieve with this record?
Honestly, we just want to reach as many people as possible, whether through some emotional connection or a simple impulse to get up and dance, or both. Daren, our drummer, likes to say our music gets people to dance and cry simultaneously. ItÃ‚Â’s funny, certain songs like Ã‚Â‘Does This Mean YouÃ‚Â’re Moving On?Ã‚Â’ actually tell fairly gut-wrenching stories, all of them true, but theyÃ‚Â’re so upbeat that you almost forget all that. Beyond reaching people, thereÃ‚Â’s no real agenda to adhere to a specific Ã‚Â‘sceneÃ‚Â’ or Ã‚Â‘sound.Ã‚Â’ I think musical categories can often be more trouble than theyÃ‚Â’re worth, and our tastes are all over the map, many of them old, I.e. The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, and The Stooges, and semi-old, I.e. Leonard Cohen, The Smiths, The Cure, and Archers Of Loaf, so itÃ‚Â’s difficult to say that we aspire to be a specific type of band with specific types of songs. Mostly, we really just want to put out a really good first record of what we think are really good songs. Hopefully, people will feel the same way.
“We felt that there was an emotionality to what we were doing.”
What are your thoughts about the Internet? Has exposure on Internet sites been beneficial for The Airborne Toxic Event?
As a band today, you have to spend a lot of time on thinking about the Internet just by virtue of the fact that everyone else is, and not doing it, is one glaring way to be completely out of touch with culture, people, the world, art, anything. We knew blogs were important, but we had no idea how important until we started feeling them collectively buoying us and moving us along, helping us get our feet off the ground. Pre-Internet, you would flyer wherever music fans would hang out. And these days, music fans hang out online, on blogs, on Myspace, and itÃ‚Â’s so hard to parse out Ã‚Â‘The InternetÃ‚Â’ from reality. Of course, we never wouldÃ‚Â’ve been able to reach as many people as we did early on without Myspace, so yeah, itÃ‚Â’s been essential as a way to put whatÃ‚Â’s basically homemade music out there to compete with some really slick stuff. The Internet can be such an equalizer in that way, you can project whatever you want to project with very little money and thatÃ‚Â’s pretty revolutionary for the music industry, or for any industry for that matter.
Do you feel like you are ready to play in front of tens of thousands of people, or do you feel so surprised when more than 10 people show up in the audience? Has playing to larger audiences changed you in some way?
ItÃ‚Â’s interesting, weÃ‚Â’ve always seemed to play better on bigger stages in front of bigger audiences. Maybe it has something to do with the kind of music we play, but IÃ‚Â’ve noticed that, as a band, we love to rise to a challenge and win audiences over. It wasnÃ‚Â’t really until we were in the UK last summer that we first played at some substantially larger venues, and aside from the initial shock, everyone in the band just fell into it naturally. WeÃ‚Â’d all sort of look at each other and be like, Ã‚Â‘Okay, letÃ‚Â’s try to win this audience over,Ã‚Â’ and it worked. Bigger stages started to feel much more comfortable, both physically – we werenÃ‚Â’t so jammed together, and mentally – we fed so much off of the energy of the audience. At this point, we know we have a pretty good L.A. following so itÃ‚Â’s not surprising to have a lot of people show up when we play Spaceland or the Troubadour. I think when a few hundred start showing up in random cities, weÃ‚Â’ll definitely be surprised. You hear about radio stations in Des Moines playing our songs, but if you show up in Iowa and kids are singing along and know all the breaks in a song, thatÃ‚Â’s got to be somewhat surreal.
Do you like being on the road? What is the band like on the road?
Let me put it this way, weÃ‚Â’re very grateful that there is a girl in the band. With just guys, humor very quickly devolves into prison humor before long, and pretty soon youÃ‚Â’re just punching each other and laughing. That gets old after a while. Anna, our viola player, keeps things mature and relatively decent. We all respond differently to being on the road, though weÃ‚Â’ve all learned that itÃ‚Â’s necessary to recharge your batteries every once in a while. IÃ‚Â’m pretty good at it. Sometimes, IÃ‚Â’ll just shut off and not realize that people are speaking to me. Mikel will literally be talking to me for an hour and then get mad when I ask him who heÃ‚Â’s talking to. That said, ThereÃ‚Â’s also a lot of comedy that goes on – to the point that each person has his or hers own Ã‚Â‘bitsÃ‚Â’ that they come up with to entertain everyone else in the band. Some are better than others, and if someoneÃ‚Â’s killing with a bit or a whole set, weÃ‚Â’ll definitely let them know. If someoneÃ‚Â’s not killing, weÃ‚Â’ll let them know too. Noah, our bassist, does one great one where he recites bad poetry in this New Jersey accent. ItÃ‚Â’s kind of amazing. We got about two straight hours of enjoyment out of it one time driving to San Francisco.
How did you feel about the Los Angeles Times calling the Airborne Toxic Event one of the bands to watch in 2008? Was there a sense that the band has made it, or do you feel like the band has a long way to go?
At least for me, thereÃ‚Â’s never been a moment where IÃ‚Â’ve thought, Ã‚Â‘This is it. WeÃ‚Â’ve made it!Ã‚Â’ And I donÃ‚Â’t know if IÃ‚Â’ll ever feel that way. Well, actually, I can imagine a situation where I might feel that way, but I wonÃ‚Â’t say it here. So much has happened in spurts and incrementally, and things have not happened too, so you learn to proceed cautiously. When the L.A. Times did that piece on us, of course, we were thrilled, but then we thought, Ã‚Â‘Okay what happens now?Ã‚Â’ After KROQ and Indie added us to rotation, we met with a lot of people telling us a lot of stuff, some of it questionable and some of it really sensible. One of the smartest guys we met with was Phil Costello who runs TBD, RadioheadÃ‚Â’s label, among other things. HeÃ‚Â’d come to one of our shows during the Spaceland residency. First he told us to calm down. Then he gave us some really good advice, one piece of which was that there are no shortcuts, that you have to earn your fans honestly and one at a time. That was different from what a lot of other people were telling us, and ultimately it made the most sense and still does.